Whitesburg KY

Anonymity gives the vulnerable the courage to speak their piece

(EDITOR’S NOTE: Connie Schultz is a columnist for the Cleveland Plain Dealer. Previously opposed to unsigned reader comments or letters appearing in newspapers, Ms. Schultz has come to the realization that allowing contributors to remain anonymous can play a big part in community journalism. She uses “Speak Your Piece,” which has been appearing in The Mountain Eagle since 1983, as an example.)

It was another busy week in small-town America.

This particular town is Whitesburg, Ky., in the heart of Appalachia, but judging from the mail to the weekly newspaper it could be any place in America where laws keep people moving on the right side of the road and the moon hangs overhead at midnight.

Someone wanted to know why another snotty rich girl got to be homecoming queen: “Why is it that if you’re nice to people, don’t wear name brand clothes, and treat people like human beings you are shunned when it comes to being chosen …? Isn’t it about time that someone who is low income, yet very friendly … represents our school?”

Heads up, too, on the scamming mother-daughter team with their phony hard-luck stories: “First the daughter died. Then the daughter came back to life and said the mother died. Now both mother and daughter have come back to life and are saying it was the grandmother who died.”

Someone else was agitating over infighting at the funeral home: “I was shocked at the behavior of certain family members of the deceased. A long-standing so-called feud between a few family members over petty little things has been going on for way too long … Let it go, people … Don’t any of you miss each other?”

Letcher County residents filled an entire page of “Speak Your Piece” with their opinions in the latest issue of The Mountain Eagle. Every last one of them was anonymous. Editor Ben Gish wouldn’t have it any other way.

“We live in a rural county,” said Gish. “Politics can be rough here, and some politicians give letter writers a hard time. In the early 1970s, police beat up the kids of parents who wrote letters criticizing police brutality. Or someone wrote a letter criticizing the coal industry or a politician and their family members would lose their jobs.”

It’s a lot different from writing for a large newspaper, he told me. “You don’t go to the post office and see the people you wrote about.”

He’s right. And the freedom to speak without retribution gives a real flavor for a community that the best reporting could never deliver.

I wasn’t always a fan of anonymous mail. I once wrote a column hammering the “cowardice of anonymity” because I was so certain that only those willing to identify themselves for all the world to know deserved to be heard.

Too much of my posturing, though, came from self-interest. I was weary of all those anonymous e-mails, voice messages and comments on blogs that trafficked in personal animosity.

But many anonymous messages have also taught me a lot about people’s dreams and disappointments. Often, the most vulnerable among us will share their stories only if they feel safe from further harm. Their willingness to talk to me helped change the lives of others.

Bill Reader is a journalism professor at Ohio University who forced me to reconsider the notion that only those willing to be identified deserve to be heard.

In the late 1990s, he directed the editorial page for the Centre Daily Times in State College, Pa. Part of his job was editing letters to the editor, and it bothered him that he trashed a lot of good ones simply because they didn’t have names.

“Letters to the editor were the origins of citizen journalism,” he said. “But since the early 20th century, we’ve thrown up all kinds of barriers between us and the public.”

He’s got the research to prove it, too. One national survey found that 35 percent of those who have never sent a letter to the editor would if they didn’t have to identify themselves. Whose voices are being silenced by our insistence that regular citizens meet the same standard as those of us paid to give our opinion?

“Judge the letter on its merits,” Reader said. “Is it a novel opinion? Is it well-articulated? If we give the space to readers, they’ll see the newspaper is the place to go to air ideas.”

Ground rules still apply: No personal attacks, no libeling and no inaccuracies.

No more boredom, either, if The Mountain Eagle is any indication.

By the way, I sure hope this lady was reading: “To a certain woman: Please come back and drive the bus. We all miss you.”

Reprinted from the November 2 edition of The Plain Dealer in Cleveland, Ohio.

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